By Daryl Hannah
After six years at the helm of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he will step down from the post and from President Obama’s Cabinet upon the successful appointment of a successor.
Standing next to the President, Holder made the announcement in a press conference, saying:
“Over the last six years, our administrationyour administrationhas made historic gains in realizing the principles of the founding documents and fought to protect the most sacred of American rights, the right to vote.
“We have begun to realize the promise of equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters and their families.We have begun to significantly reform our criminal-justice system and reconnect those who bravely serve in law enforcement with the communities that they protect.
“I hope I have done honor to the faith you have placed in me, Mr. President. In the months ahead, I will leave the Department of Justice, but I will neverI will never leave the work.”
President Obama thanked Holder for his service to the country, saying:
“Eric’s father was an immigrant who served in the Army in World War II only to be refused service at lunch counters in the nation he defended.But he and his wife raised their son to believe that this country’s promise was real, and that son grew up to become attorney general of the United States.And that’s something.And that’s why Eric has worked so hardnot just in my administration, but for decadesto open up the promise of this country to more striving, dreaming kids like him.To make sure those wordslife, liberty and the pursuit of happinessare made real for all of us. So I just want to say thank you, Eric.”
The first Black attorney general and by all accounts a committed liberal with a special concern for civil rights, Holder caused a stir for both the immediate and long term by announcing his resignation.
As the country heads into the 2014 midterm elections in Novemberthe first since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively removed a major Justice Department tool for combatting voting restrictionsHolder has been an outspoken critic of state laws that limit voting by either changing voter-ID laws or implementing new rules for early voting and voter registration.
He also called attention to the need for prison-sentencing reform and a review of racial disparities in the criminal-justice system. Noting the racial makeup of the prison population and the sentencing record of minority offenders, Holder has also advocated for the restoration of voting rights for some formerly incarcerated Americans.
“It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision,” Holder said while speaking at Georgetown Law School in February. “These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive. By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”
And, of course, Holder also represented President Obama in Ferguson, Mo., serving as both an ambassador to try to cool tempers and a federal presence to investigate accusations of police brutality and of overzealous law-enforcement officials on the ground.
However, despite these accomplishmentsincluding putting the full weight of the Justice Department behind same-gender marriageHolder has been less successful in other areas.
He failed to bring criminal sanctions against Wall Street bankers after the subprime crisis, saying that some institutions were too big and important to the U.S. financial system to prosecute.
He also was involved in a notable entanglement with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The Justice Department challenged Louisiana’s school-voucher program, a favorite education system of conservatives. In the DOJ’s lawsuit, Holder connected school vouchers to the long and ongoing battle to desegregate American schools, especially in the South.
“Students leaving these schools with state-issued vouchers impeded the desegregation process,” the DOJ argued in a brief. “Moreover, some of these schools had achieved or were close to achieving the desired degree of student racial diversity, and the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward desegregation.”
And despite his congressional testimony that he believes waterboarding is torture, Holder neglected to prosecute President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom have publicly boasted about ordering waterboarding.
He also rebuffed a report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) that declared that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records was not authorized under federal law, did not help fight terrorism and should be ended. Holder’s only response was that the “program itself is legal.”
There’s no word yet on who will replace Holder but there is speculation that the position will be filled by a woman. On Sunday, Charles Ogletree, a law professor at Harvard, a longtime friend of Holder and an Obama mentor, repeatedly referred to Holder’s replacement as “she” during an MSNBC interview. Ogletree would not go public with a name but allowed that “she would be a great attorney general. I think we’re gonna have a long way to go to figure out who she will beand I hope it will be a woman.”
Some potential candidates being floated are former White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and University of California System President Janet Napolitano.
It’s impossible to predict how history will remember Eric Holder’s tenure as attorney general, but one thing is clear: They all will point to his unflinching record on civil rights and democracy.